VIOLENT BACKLASH

Print edition : October 28, 2000

The Palestinian people hit back as Israel persists with its provocative agenda and heavy-handed tactics.

AFTER three weeks of violence that left over a hundred dead and thousands injured, it was easy for the world to forget that this was not a fight between Israelis and Palestinians. It was a virtual war between Israeli troops armed with tanks, helicopter g unships and rockets on the one side, and Palestinian civilians armed with a few guns, sling-shots and fire-bombs on the other. If the gross mismatch between the forces engaged in the fighting has been obscured, so has been the nature of the violence. It was nothing less than the explosion of Palestinian rage against the colonial occupation by Israel. A classic 20th century struggle fought in the dawn of the new millennium.

intifada

To say that the actual fighting was carried out for the most part by Israeli soldiers is not to absolve Israeli civilians of their responsibility. Some of these civilians, the Jewish residents of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, actively part icipated in the proceedings by contributing to the gunfire and committing arson in Palestinian villages. Right-wing Israeli politicians used the violence to justify the perpetuation of the conditions that generate Palestinian rage. "Pro-peace" left-winge rs stood paralysed by the apparent collapse of their policy. Mainstream opinion in Israel appeared unable to comprehend, even after three decades of rule over the Palestinians and one decade of negotiations with them, that the Arabs were not about to lov e them so long as they continued to deny the Palestinians their rights.

It is necessary at this stage to reiterate what the "peace process" or the West Asian negotiations has been all about since the focus has for so long been on the details that the overall picture has been obscured. It was all about Land for Peace, though from the sequence in which the transaction has taken place the term should perhaps be Peace for Land. The Palestinians were to guarantee to the Israelis peace - or the absence of a threat to the security of Israelis - in exchange for Land on which they c ould set up their own state. In point of fact, even the Peace for Land formula has implicit in it a great generosity or surrender by the Palestinians. Israelis claim that the generosity, if any, has been from their side since there are few examples of a state surrendering land that it had conquered (by this they mean the territories they captured in 1967). But at the end of the day the fact is that the Palestinians have already forgone 80 per cent of the patrimony they could claim in 1948 and are now tr ying to build their state in the remaining 20 per cent.

In the wake of the fighting, advocates of a Greater Israel (an Israel that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River) were gleefully pointing out that the Peace for Land formula was unworkable. In their view, Arab enmity to Israel and Isra elis was so implacable that they would continue attacking irrespective of what "concessions" were granted to them. This despite the fact that for at least two years, if not more, there have been hardly any terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. Even dur ing the three weeks of fighting in October there was not one instance when Palestinians from the territories crossed the invisible border into Israel to attack civilians. As far as Israeli civilians are concerned, the Peace part of the bargain has been s ubstantially granted by the Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, U.S. President Bill Clinton, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the two-day summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt on October 17.-J.SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP

What the Palestinians have got in return is largely more of the same. Most Palestinians now live under the administrative control of their autonomous Authority. The Palestinian Authority runs their schools and hospitals, taxes and polices them. But Israe li soldiers still patrol many of the villages, refugee camps and the roads between the towns. Israel also has overriding control over the crossing points between the West Bank and Jordan, and between the Gaza Strip and Egypt as well as the "corridor" bet ween the detached enclaves that form the Palestinian territories. The result is that the Israelis can interdict communication between the Palestinian communities at will as they did during the recent riots and when disturbances broke out in times past.

Palestinians travelling between their communities on a daily basis, in times that are supposed to be normal, have to run the gauntlet of Israeli check-points where often the treatment they receive is humiliating. It can be a surreal experience. Inside fu lly Palestinian controlled areas such as the al Bireh suburb of Ramallah, it would appear as if the residents have forgotten all about their dispute with Israel as they go about building swank apartment blocks. But on the roads between Ramallah and Jerus alem, the mere sight of an Israeli traffic police vehicle (not an armed patrol) can be enough to send shivers through the occupants of a Palestinian taxi.

For grown men to be rudely questioned by teenagers carrying guns is one thing. It is another for them also to be told that they cannot offer their services in the main market for their labour, or that they cannot freely get and distribute what goods they want, or that they cannot freely access the best hospitals or universities in the region, or freely bring in capital into their territories or freely pray at their most important religious shrine. At the same time, the Palestinians have continued to los e land that Israel confiscates to build roads and settlements.

Yet if the Palestinian masses have put up with these conditions with relative patience it was not merely because they had realised the futility of combating a much more mighty force. It was also not because they had been told by the men who lead and man their repressive, and sometimes brutal, Authority that they must be quiescent. For all the scepticism that Palestinians express from time to time, the hope that their aspirations could be fulfilled through negotiations with Israel had survived, and serve d to make them a little more patient.

The funeral of 22-year-old Mansour Taha killed on October 13 Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Hebron.-VAN DER STOCKT LAURE/GAMMA

That hope had not died by the time the recent conflagration was sparked off. As far as the Palestinian masses knew, their leader Yasser Arafat and his officials had not been able to gain through negotiations the conditions they require to fulfil their as pirations. Further rounds of negotiations were however around the corner, and Arafat had shown at the Camp David talks that he would not be pushed into relinquishing the conditions that the Palestinians require at a minimum. There was trepidation that th e pressure on Arafat would mount and there was indignation that President Bill Clinton of the United States had, post-Camp David, revealed his bias towards Israel that he had for long concealed. This he revealed by accusing Arafat of being less ready for peace than Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Barak. But Arafat had himself not expressed a lack of faith in Clinton and there was ample evidence that the rest of the international community favoured a final settlement that would meet Palestinian aspirations .

It was into this explosive mix of trepidation, concern and barely surviving hope that Ariel Sharon flicked a lit match-stick. If there was anything that the Palestinian Muslims were most concerned about, it was the prospect that they might have to dilute their exclusive right over the Haram al Sharif in Jerusalem. Sharon, whose decades-long personal history of involvement with the killing of Arabs (the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatilla camps in the course of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that Sharon instigated as Defence Minister in the early 1980s being the most glaring example) decided that this was the moment for him to take a walk-about on the Haram which the Israelis call Temple Mount.

Barak probably decided that it would be impolitic to stop Sharon at a time when he was still trying to establish world Jewry's parallel right to the Temple Mount. Sharon would have won the sympathies of many Jews when he accused Barak of surrendering the ir interests. Whether it was wise on the part of Barak to have provided Sharon with a thousand-strong police escort, that turned his visit into a triumph that Titus the destroyer of the Second Temple of the Jews would have been proud of, is another matte r. Incensed Arabs responded by pelting Israeli policemen with stones and pieces of debris. Even then, matters could have still been brought under control within a few days.

The next day - September 29, a Friday and the Muslim sabbath - the stone-throwers got active again. They were met with batons, tear-gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and live rounds from the Israeli side. What was soon to send shock waves through the Pale stinians was the mounting evidence that Israeli troops were going for head and chest shots - shooting to kill. The conflagrations swept throughout the territories and it was as if the intifada had been fully revived. Palestinian rage mounted by th e day as their casualties piled up, and as it became apparent that the Israeli troops were not sparing even children and ambulance drivers. The most horrifying incident was the killing of 12-year old Mohammed al Durra while he cowered in fear behind his father. Those who witnessed the incident reported that shots had been fired at the cistern behind which Mohammed and his father crouched for a full 45 minutes.

At least 25 children or teenagers below 18 were among the over 100 Palestinians killed up to the third week of October. On the Israeli side, the dead were barely a dozen - all of them either soldiers or settlers. Not one of the Israeli dead in the clashe s with the Palestinians were killed inside Israel. About the only incident when the Israelis experienced the horror of death on the scale the Palestinians were being accustomed to was when a mob lynched two Army reservists who had wandered into Ramallah by mistake. In two other instances, the Palestinians went beyond the limits of the permissible by demolishing a Jewish shrine in Nablus and torching a synagogue in Jericho. Israeli civilians reacted to the desecration of the shrine in Nablus by demolishi ng a mosque in Tiberias.

Palestinians give vent to their rage in Jerusalam, October 1.-UPI/GAMMA

Israel responded to the lynching of their soldiers and the burning of the Jericho synagogue by launching rocket attacks from helicopter gunships at a number of targets in the West Bank and Gaza. Among the targets was the police station in Ramallah where the soldiers were lynched and a guard post adjacent to Arafat's headquarters in Gaza City. Arafat was not intended to be a target, only the recipient of a message. In peppering the Palestinian territories with rockets, the broad message that Barak sought to deliver was that the mismatch in fire-power was so profound that the Palestinians should not even dream of achieving their aspirations through violence.

The Palestinian response was that they had neither instigated the fighting nor were indulging in violence against ordinary Israelis. They were merely demonstrating their outrage first at Sharon's arrogant display and then at the excessive force with whic h Israel met their initial protests. Denying that the force they had used was excessive, Barak and his officials insisted that their troops had shot to kill only because gunfire had been directed at them from the Palestinians side. In terms of the sequen ce of events, this accusation is not really borne out. Palestinian gunmen did open fire on Israeli troops and settlers and there were several occasions when fire-fights raged for hours together. But there were no reports of gun-fire from the Palestinian side on the first few days and there was substance to the Palestinian defence that they had resorted to guns only to defend themselves.

A difference between the events of October 2000 and the intifada of 1987-92 lay in the fact that the Palestinians had recourse to automatic weapons this time around. But in another respect the two episodes were not very different. This time, as in 1987-92, the fighting was done by Palestinian youth under virtually the same set of warrior leaders. The political leadership as represented by Arafat and his elderly lieutenants was one step removed from the fray, either unable to restrain their youth or constrained to give them moral encouragement. Again, as in the earlier intifada, the Palestinians were fighting defensively within their own territories and not committing aggression inside Israel.

As Marwan Barghouti, widely acknowledged as the general of the Palestinian fighters, was to point out, the Palestinians were fighting on the doorsteps of their own neighbourhoods. Barghouti's emergence as a leader in his own right will probably have long -term implications within Palestine but at the moment what caused surprise was the strength and coherence of the force that he had organised. Culled from the youth wing of Fatah, Arafat's political faction, the tanzeem led by Barghouti revealed it self as an organisation with a presence in all the scattered Palestinian communities and capable of coordinating the myriad battles.

Israeli leaders probably thought that the tanzeem's affiliation to Fatah gave substance to their charge that the whole affair had been orchestrated by Arafat. This accusation was somewhat dented by the fact that Barghouti was among the few Palestinians w ho was known to have opposed Arafat on occasion and to have got away with it because of the support he enjoyed on the street. Nevertheless, Israel had to make this charge since it had clearly been pushed on the backfoot in the arena of international publ ic opinion. But then it tried to go for the overkill and accused Arafat personally of directing children to go to the forefront and face Israeli bullets. Barghoutis telling reply to this accusation was that the Israeli belief that the Palestinians would send their children off to be killed only showed that the Israelis did not consider the Palestinians to be human.

As racial animosities came boiling to the surface, it had repercussions for communal amity within Israel as well. Arab citizens of Israel, who still consider themselves part of the Palestinian nation, felt just as outraged by what they considered a desec ration of their holy mosque and the use of disproportionate force against their brethren in the territories. These recent events ignited the pent-up rage and resentment at the less-than-equal treatment they had received from all Israeli governments since 1948. For at least a couple of days the Galilee region, where most of 20 per cent of Israeli citizens who are Arab live, was turned into a battle zone as the Arabs fought Israeli policemen and Jews.

The recrudescence of racial hatreds caused much despair within the secular, pro-peace camp in Israel and perhaps within the U.S. administration as well. Staring them in the face was the question whether peace could ever be made between two people who hat ed each other so intensely. After all, for the past seven years they had tried to establish and run a mechanism whereby the two peoples could learn to tolerate each other so that they could eventually live with each other. The old Israeli complaint about a lack of reciprocity from the Palestinian side now found expression in the statements such as that they did not believe Arafat was a partner in peace.

Israeli peaceniks might not have been so bewildered by the turn in events if they had not lost track of the fundamental flaw in approach which they too are guilty of practising. At the base of it is the traditional Zionist denial of the Palestinians as a people who too seek peace and progress. Even the pro-peace camp in Israel has been so obsessed with the need to obtain guarantees of their security from the Palestinians that they do not see the effect their armed strength has on the Palestinian psyche. What the Palestinians can see is a developed state and society with a powerful army that has occupied their lands and refuses to give it back except on the impossible condition that they give gilt-edged securities for all time to come. The Palestinian p owerlessness is compounded by the fact that the supposedly impartial mediator, the U.S. administration, cannot ultimately shed its pro-Israeli bias and that they cannot depend on their Arab brethren at the crunch.

There is of course a gross mismatch in strength and Israel either possesses that which Palestinians desire or is able to deny the Palestinians what they desire. The Palestinians entered the negotiations fully aware that Israel would be able to dictate th e terms. But the negotiations were supposed to be aimed at a settlement that would be fair so that it could be durable, and only such a settlement could give Israel the security it craved for in the first place. Then again, as the Palestinians repeatedly point out, they have already granted Israel what it most desired - recognition of Israel's right to exist on 80 per cent of the land that they must eventually share. Given the very marginal improvement that seven years of negotiations have brought to th e condition of their existence, it is hardly surprising that Palestinians gnash their teeth when they hear talk of Israeli "concessions".

Those who are more sympathetic to the Palestinian plight, within Israel and the West, do sporadically acknowledge Israel's less-than-impeccable track record in the implementation of past agreements. But they are still shocked that the Palestinian uprisin g broke out just after Barak had gone so much further towards meeting Palestinian aspirations than it was imagined any Israeli leader ever would. It is another matter that any Israeli leader would have had to try and meet Palestinian aspirations if he wa nted a durable peace. But had Barak offered terms for a settlement that the Palestinians could live with?

THE best offer from Barak - as outlined in his proposals at the Camp David talks in July, subsequent clarifications and the implicit logic of the stated proposals and the situation on the ground is on the following lines. Barak had offered to withdraw fr om 95 per cent of the West Bank, including the Jordan valley that previous Israeli leaders had believed essential for their country's security. The 5 per cent that he sought to retain comprised the settlements that straddle Israel's 1967 border and the s uburban enclaves built near Jerusalem. This meant that the scattered settlements, populated largely by right-wing extremists, would be allowed to wither on the vine. A demand from the Palestinians that they must be compensated with land adjacent to the G aza Strip of equal size and quality to the 5 per cent was apparently being discussed.

Discussions, amounting to some advancement, were under way in respect of the other major issues in dispute. Israel was readying to countenance the return of a small portion of the refugees whose families had not left altogether in 1948 and apparently wou ld have had no complaints to make if the rest had returned to the West Bank. There was also talk of setting up a compensation fund though it had not been completely figured out as to how the money would be raised. The question of Palestinian statehood wa s not being considered as a problem any longer though the treaty-making powers and military strength of this state had still to be fixed through negotiations.

Barak had formally offered to transfer control over the non-Jews who live in East Jerusalem including the Walled City, but not the land on which they live. However, given the logic of the situation on the ground it was not clear what Israel hoped to gain by keeping East Jerusalem Arabs under their control. In fact, just before the uprising broke out, Barak had said in an interview to Jerusalem Post that he envisaged a future where an Arab al Quds would exist adjacent to an Israeli Jerusalem. All these offers were, however, contingent on their acceptance in toto by the Palestinians. If the Palestinians were to reject completely any one of these terms, the rest would be off the table as well.

The potential treaty breaker was the question of future control over the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif complex. Palestinians, and Arabs in general, can just not accept that Jews should have any right over their noble sanctuary. In the Palestinian opinion, Israel's claim, that the mount on which the Haram stands covers the site of the first and second Jewish Temples, is based on sheer myth. Yet, even on this issue various proposals were being floated about how sovereignty could be shared. By the end of Au gust, it did appear that the chances of a breakthrough on all these issues were better than ever. If so, why did Arafat allow the uprising to run out of control even if he could not have stopped at the outset the outburst of anger over Sharon's visit?

That question pre-supposes that Arafat could have controlled the uprising if he had wanted to. Arafat does have a variety of security forces at his disposal but the anger on the Palestinian street was so profound that he might not have been able to risk a deployment of his troops since they might have either disobeyed him or would have had to clash with their own people - who in their opinion were not doing anything wrong. Barak's threat that he would form a national unity, or emergency, government with Sharon if the Palestinians did not soon respond to his proposals for a settlement, also had to be taken seriously. With the hardline Sharon in the Israeli Cabinet, the negotiations would have effectively come to an end and the uprising occurred at a con venient moment for Arafat to remind the Israelis about the consequences should the negotiations collapse. It is also possible that Arafat let the rage run for some time before he moved to curb it.

Ariel Sharon, surrounded by Israeli security men leaves the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem after his controversial visit on September 28.-EYAL WARSHAVSKY/AP

A GLIMPSE into Arafat's political difficulties was provided by the main condition that he set for his participation at the Sharm El-Sheikh summit that Clinton and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak jointly chaired on October 16 and 17. Arafat insisted that an international commission of enquiry be instituted to probe the cause of the riots. The U.N. Security Council, at a session held during the early stages of the crisis, found that Sharon's visit had been the provocation and condemned the use of excessi ve force by Israel (though neither Israel's nor Sharon's name was in the resolution). But if Arafat still insisted on an international commission of enquiry it was probably because he wanted to establish once and for all that his people were the ones who were being wronged.

The best that Arafat could get was the offer of an investigation team to be led by the U.S. but one that could have representatives of other countries or international organisations as well. Arafat and Barak also gave an undertaking to the other sumittee rs - though they did not sign a document to this effect - that they would order their respective gunmen to cease fire. They also undertook to re-start negotiations on the substantive issues within two weeks. For once the world was spared the sight of a g roup of leaders shaking hands as if such gestures could help overcome the real hard problems.

Although the fighting did not die down immediately, and although Israel kept threatening that it would take a "time out" on negotiations, there was hope that a truce would become more effective after an Arab summit on October 21 and 22. As has happened o ver the past decades the Arab leaders could not show a commonality let alone a unity of purpose. This time around, Iraq was in but Libya was out. On substantive issues the Arab world found itself divided between the moderates who sought to strengthen Ara fat's hands before he returned to the negotiating table and the hot-heads who called for jehad. These differences appeared to preclude a united Arab position but it appeared that the summit would at least produce a strong enough statement of suppo rt for the Palestinians.

By the end of the Arab summit, there was, however, news that Arafat would order his security forces to stop Palestinians from shooting at Israelis. The tanzeem also gave indications that it would be transforming the protest into a peaceful one. By the third week of October, Arafat probably felt that he could and should curb the uprising. His people had shown their basic unity and readiness to fight for their cause, and had thereby shown the Israelis that the peace they craved was not something th ey could take for granted. With the tanzeem taking control of the uprising, Arafat was also in a position to show that he held the power on the streets and that he was the sole spokesman for the Palestinian cause. If Arafat's moves in the coming weeks a re on the lines of these projections he would return to the negotiating table with the knowledge that his interlocutors are aware of his strength. He would also re-enter the negotiations with the clear articulation of what his people's struggle had been all about - national liberation from colonial occupation.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor